- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
Last week, the U.N.’s human rights office in Sudan produced an internal memo concluding that last month’s Sudanese military "attack and occupation" of the disputed town of Abyei "is tantamount to ethnic cleansing," according to a copy of the confidential memo obtained by Turtle Bay.
The memo said that the nature of the attack and forced displacement of tens of thousands of black ethnic Ngok Dinka, including the destruction of their homes and the seizure of their property by ethnic Arab Misseriya tribes, made the prospects for their return dim. The action, it said, would also complicate international efforts to resolve an ongoing dispute over Abyei’s chances for independence.
"By destroying their homes, looting their properties and inspiring fear and terror, over 30,000 Ngok Dinkas have been forcefully displaced from their ancestral homes, leaving the Abyei area now more or less homogenously occupied by the Misseriya," the report stated. "The likelihood of all the Ngok Dinkas returning to Abyei is limited.… The Government of Sudan must be held accountable."
But the U.N. has since backed off the claim that ethnic cleansing had occurred. A revised, softened version of the memo, according to a report in the Associated Press, only claimed that the Sudanese Armed Forces’ "occupation" of Abyei might result in ethnic cleansing. "The SAF attack and occupation of Abyei and the resultant displacement of over 30,000 Ngok Dinkas from Abyei could lead to ethnic cleansing, if conditions for the return of the displaced Ngok Dinka residents are not created," according to the report.
The watered-down language followed assurances by Sudan that it would help pave the way for the return of nearly 80,000 Ngok Dinka residents, including 30,000 inside the town of Abyei, according to U.N. officials. There was also a question about whether thousands of nomadic ethnic Arab Misseriya who joined Sudanese forces in looting and burning homes in Abyei really intended to stay in Abyei. Traditionally, the Misseriya have only entered the region temporarily to graze their cattle during the dry season.
Speaking at a press conference at U.N. headquarters today, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon said that Khartoum pledged to pave the way for thousands of residents to ultimately return to their homes in Abyei. He endorsdd the U.N.’s softer line on characterizing the Sudanese attack, saying it is “far too early to claim that ethnic cleansing is taking place."
The five-page memo, which was written by the human rights section of the U.N. Mission in Sudan, said the latest flare-up of violence in Abyei started on May 19 in the town of Dokura, when forces of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) allegedly opened fire on a U.N.-escorted convoy composed of troops from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), killing two Sudanese soldiers and blowing up a U.N. truck.
Fearing reprisals, most of the areas’ civilians, primarily Ngok Dinkas, fled en masse toward the southern town of Agok, leaving behind an unknown number of civilians and groups of armed youth seeking to defend their towns. U.N. ground patrols and aerial surveillance showed that Abyei was "virtually empty and deserted" by the time Sudanese forces seized the town but that "a number of the Abyei residents were killed during the attack as evidenced by dead bodies that were seen lying around in Abyei." In the end, Sudanese forces and their allies burned as many as 20 percent of the homes in Abyei to the ground.
Two days later, the Sudanese army responded with a massive military assault, bombing and shelling SPLA positions in the Abyei region, including the villages of Todach, Tajalei, Noong, Leu, Makir Abior, Awolnom, and Marial Achack. Days later, the Sudanese army blew up the Banton Bridge on the River Kiir, south of Abyei, undermining the ability of most locals who fled south from the violence to return.
"On the night of 21 May 2011, SAF attacked and took control of Abyei, amidst artillery shelling, armored tank firing, mortar shelling, and machine gun fire," according to the memo. "There was heavy fighting, especially around UNMIS compound, presumably between the SAF and South Sudan Police Services (SSPS) and possibly armed Ngok youths. UNMIS was accidentally shelled five times. Four of the shells exploded resulting in minor injuries to 2 Egyptian TCC soldiers and the destruction of one UNWFP vehicle. It took a direct hit and burned."
The following day, pro-Khartoum militia from the Misseriya tribe and forces of the People’s Defense Forces moved into Abyei. "They began moving from tukul [dwelling] to tukul, and allegedly killed residents trapped therein, mostly Ngok Dinkas. An elderly woman who took refuge in the UN camp, in an interview, stated that her 37 year [old] son … was murdered.… Another woman also sheltered at UNMIS claimed that she was raped."
The Sudanese Armed Forces commander, Brig. Gen. Azdeen Osman, prevented U.N. peacekeepers from entering the town of Abyei until nearly four days after the attack began, citing security concerns.
"The Abyei attack, from all indications is not a retaliatory and offensive action occasioned" by the SPLA’s May 19 attack, according to the memo. "Rather, the attack and occupation of Abyei by SAF was part of a deliberate plan by the north conceived long before the Dokura incident."
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